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Making a Beeline

We have escaped the drudgery of winter. Hurrah! This means sunshine, flowers, colours and allergies (allergies are the pits). But let’s stay positive and focus instead on the optimism that Spring brings! It’s a time when trees turn green, grass grows and flowers bloom. No doubt you’ll also notice the return of bees as they pollinate and suck the nectar from flowering plants. Bees love that sugar rush and flowers need insects to spread their pollen. In biology, this is called a symbiotic relationship. Plants have undergone some amazing, and rather cunning, evolutionary changes to attract insect pollinators to propagate their survival.

Flowering plants use visual cues to attract insect pollinators. And the remarkable thing is it’s invisible to humans. For us, the limit of our colour vision is defined by the electromagnetic waves within the visible spectrum. However many insects, such as bees and butterflies, are able to see into the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. Ultraviolet radiation consists of electromagnetic waves shorter than those that comprise the colour violet, hence ultraviolet. Because of this, flowers have adapted to feature ultraviolet landing patterns to guide pollinators towards their pollen.

African Daisy UV
African Daisy UV (Dr Klaus Schmitt, Flickr)

Take daisies for example. You know what they look like- the common daisy has a yellow centre or ‘pistil’ surrounded by plain white petals (though these colours do vary between species). By using modified cameras, researchers have found that the plain white petals are not plain at all. Each individual petal has a dark ultraviolet patch towards the centre, and when viewed together, comprises of a dark UV circular patch surrounding the pistil. In other words, flowers are visually screaming at bees, “Come at me! Get to the pollen!” Of course, the bees love this. And apparently, it also warms their flying butts.

It’s nothing short of incredible that flowers and insects have co-evolved in such extraordinary measures. And as a top-of-the-food-chain human, it’s almost inconceivable to think that there is a whole other world in our backyard that we can’t even see. There is still much to learn from our big beautiful planet, so let’s look after it and let’s not ever take it for granted.

Happy Spring!


Featured Image by Freddy Olsson



About Joanna Ng

Joanna Ng

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